Why "No Phones at the Table" Is a Rule Worth Following (Guest Column)

Illustration by: Lars Leetaru

Those of us making content, regardless of what size screen it is seen on, should also help set an example of when to put the screen down.

You know those scenes in movies … sorry, I mean in “content,” where characters enter the internet and the moment is depicted as being sucked into a tunnel of light where the outside world disappears? We are all “tunneling” more and more these days.

You’re at home and think you’re talking to your wife, but you realize you were talking at someone composing a Facebook post. Or, the "heroes greeting" you quietly pray to receive from your children when you enter from the garage is, instead, silence as one kid is binge-viewing on Netflix or Hulu, and the other is “taking a scroll” on Instagram. At least the dogs still bark at you. That’s nice.

The internet brings the world together and tears intimacy apart every day. Book a flight, buy handmade jewelry, map your route, get a job, meet someone new, all modern miracles and potential new connections achieved in seconds, but at home and in our workplaces, our devices have become magnets at polar opposite, repelling us from each other. Whether it is the pull of the new and not-yet-known (I was always so excited to check the mailbox as a kid), or the permission to retreat (what a relief to have your phone in an elevator to avoid small talk!), it is harder and harder to remain present and in the moment with those around us, even in our own homes.

I was an early adopter, never without my Blackberry, back when they still looked like the fruit they were named for. Just a few quaint Liquid Crystal Display lines back then didn’t seem like the beginning of a global behavioral shift. Over the decade following 9/11, while waiting for another shoe to drop and checking for those CNN Breaking News alerts, we all unconsciously shifted to a 24/7 cycle.

Then, over the past 6 years, smartphones with full color hi-res video have emerged as truly ubiquitous. As technology moves so much faster than we can imagine, we have had little choice but to roll with it, clicking “I Agree,” never minding to contemplate the Terms of Service, plunging deeper and with greater frequency into the tunnel.

This is not a piece on privacy, so no TOS lecture today, but perhaps we can together create some Interpersonal Terms of Service. As all of us living through this transition know, there are no rules yet, no etiquette established, and as with all new topics, children look to parents and society for guidance. They are watching us, knowingly or unknowingly picking up on our habits. And, while device behavior may seem trivial when compared to how we behave on the road, for example, to a teenager, every social media move seemingly carries the weight of life or death. Did they like enough friends’ posts, share their own stories, or perhaps more nobly, respond promptly enough to a friend seeking help on their homework? Simply picking up their device leads to an instant glut of unfulfilled implied obligations awaiting a response; a stronger, irresistible pull deeper down. Let’s help them look back up.

In our home, the rule is simply: No Phones at the Table. We say “N-Patt” for short because it’s silly and dumb and fun to say aloud, and it empowers the kids to enforce the rules and bust the parents just as much as the other way around. Sometimes when the kids bust me, if something is truly urgent, I force myself to leave the table since it feels more honest to exit than to pretend I am present in both places. Not allowing myself to think I’m having it both ways has led to so many more uninterrupted quality moments with family out of the tunnel.

This rule works just as well at restaurants, or even at friends’ houses where we can quietly observe the practice without sounding like we’re trying to make other people live by our rules. Of course, all good rules are made to be broken, the glow will never permanently leave every table, but you’d be surprised how OK it is to let go once you have pushed through those moments a few times.

Knowing that “N-Patt” is no more likely to catch on than “fetch,” I was thrilled to be asked to take part in a recently-launched campaign led by the good folks at Common Sense Media, called #devicefreedinner. The spirit is identical, the support is widespread and growing, and Common Sense really does great work so on many fronts, giving parents and children the tools to make educated choices about how they enjoy media, from series and features, to games, apps and books. Those of us making that content, regardless of what size screen it is seen on, should also help set an example of when to put the screen down. If we dig the tunnel, we owe it to each other to also throw the rope down and help people out.

The etiquette of the future is ours to shape. What rules do you have? Comment here or, even better, talk about it over a #devicefreedinner. France went as far as enacting “right to disconnect” legislation for employees. While I don’t see that ever happening in America, I would say that for our own kids, putting phones away at the table is a pretty simple and great start.

David Miner is a manager, producer and partner at 3 Arts Entertainment. He hopes you enjoy the upcoming new seasons of Master of None and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and premiere of Great News all in the coming weeks, just not while at the table.

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